“The national narrative is a narrative of infantilization, a fairy tale written for children in which love, sex, family, in fact all human endeavor, is sentimentalized, stripped of nuance and ambiguity and all of life’s inherent contradictions. We need everything spelled out; we are a culture with childish notions, even of childhood.”
Identity is a construct that forms in response to a psychic need: for protection, for validation, for a sense of belonging in a bewildering world. It’s a narrative; it tells itself stories about itself. But identity is also a reflex, a tribal chant performed collectively to ward off danger, the Other, and even the inevitable. Its rules are simple: They demand allegiance; they require belief in one’s own basic goodness and rightness. It’s a construct based not in fact but on belief, and as such it has far more in common with religion than with reason. I try for the life of me to understand what it is and how the fiction of what this country has become has turned into such a mind-altering force that one can only speak of mass hypnosis or a form of collective psychosis in which the USA still, bafflingly, sees itself as the “greatest nation on Earth,” in which anything that calls what makes America American into question is met not with impartial analysis or self-scrutiny but indignant and often hostile repudiation. We have, as Baldwin observed in his Collected Essays, “a very curious sense of reality—or, rather…a striking addiction to irreality.” Are we really as brave as we think we are; are we as honest, as enterprising, as free as we think we are? We’re not the envy of the world and haven’t been for a long time, and while this might not match the image we have of ourselves, it’s time to address the cognitive dissonance and look within.
I’m reading tomorrow evening from the German and English editions of my book Wie viele Tage (Literaturverlag DROSCHL) / A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing) at Buchlounge Zehlendorf, Clayallee 343, at 8 pm. Here’s a radio broadcast the wonderful Michaela Gericke did with me a week or two ago in the studio for RBB Kulturradio (in German).
And the drawings we talk about in the beginning can be seen here.
“She sees a slip of paper lying on the street at the point of projected convergence, and she picks it up with a feeling that retrieving it is somehow necessary and crucial. That’s a key passage in the book, and it comes close to describing a relationship to meaning, in the way that you’re living in an insentient world, in a world of natural phenomena, man-made phenomena, trains and buses and buildings and streets, yet things are constantly happening that can suddenly seem to be saying something to you. The phrase I use in the book is ‘a language of happenstance […] in the din of occurrence.’ Searching for meaning in these chance occurrences—the superstitious see signs in coincidences, but you could also think of them as constituting a kind of language. But whose, and to what purpose? At the moment I’m reading Esther Kinsky’s Hain, a beautiful book that she’s called a Geländeroman—how would you translate that into English?—it’s not nature writing, but a meditative description of outdoor spaces that could be called wasteland or fallow land, something in between city or village and rural. Basically, the premise of the book—although I’m sure Kinsky’s intentions are more complex—is to reflect consciousness in the process of observation. Kinsky’s narrator studies a landscape that’s transitioning into a kind of poorly defined, semi-urban space—it’s a landscape, but it’s not idyllic: there’ll be a dump somewhere, or something broken down and very ugly. And through this description process, through this unbelievably painstaking, precise description that consists of the quietest, most strikingly poetic details, she reflects and clarifies her thought process, her process of remembering. There’s a passage mid-way in the book in which she actually begins speaking of a grammar in the landscape: a slash, a comma, a sentence answered by another sentence; birds as a flurry of punctuation marks. It’s extraordinary..”
“When a person lives between two continents, two apartments, the transience of things becomes even more urgent. It’s a question that seems to haunt Andrea Scrima. Again and again, the objects that surround her are brought into sharp focus: objects that need to be packed, stored, and transported in moving boxes; objects the sheer force of human presence suffuses with meaning. Incessantly, the self attempts to catch hold of individual situations and moments in time, zooms in on them with an almost uncanny precision of perception to salvage them from the obscurity of the past and the unarticulated and to shed light on them. Not glaringly, but tenuously, with caution.”
It’s not we who remember places; it’s they that remember us. They’re the ones that no longer let go, and sometimes we can retrieve them in the crypt of memories—as Andrea Scrima has done in her sensitively written novel “Wie Viele Tage”.
Nearly every section […] begins with an address: Bedford Avenue, Kent Avenue, Ninth Street, Eisenbahnstrasse, Fidicinstrasse. These are the streets where the artist and writer lived in the eighties and nineties; here are the apartments where recollections of times, emotions, states of mind have embedded themselves. And even if the locations and faces are in danger of disappearing, even if they sink a bit deeper each year into the memory crypt, some part of the self nonetheless remains. We don’t just remember places. We seem, in a kind of magical thinking, to inscribe ourselves into these places. They are the ones that no longer let go.
— Ulrich Rüdenauer, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 3. Mai 2018
A Conversation with Andrea Scrima on A Lesser Day and the new German edition, Wie viele Tage.
“She sees a slip of paper lying on the street at the point of projected convergence, and she picks it up with a feeling that retrieving it is somehow necessary and crucial. That’s a key passage in the book, and it comes close to describing a relationship to meaning, in the way that you’re living in an insentient world, in a world of natural phenomena, man-made phenomena, trains and buses and buildings and streets, yet things are constantly happening that can suddenly seem to be saying something to you. The phrase I use in the book is ‘a language of happenstance […] in the din of occurrence.’ Searching for meaning in these chance occurrences—the superstitious see signs in coincidences, but you could also think of them as constituting a kind of language. But whose, and to what purpose?”
“A linear narrative is sacrificed in favor of a porous, associative composition that blurs dimensions through its mantra-like ‘but that came later.’ History becomes palpable as a background murmur. The reconstruction of the turbulent decade in which the narrator’s vagabond life takes place is achieved through newspaper clippings, which she appropriates artistically. What remains is an inquiry into the time-space continuum: to what degree is the artist today the person she encounters in the layers of her painting surfaces, her texts, the layers of her past? These are things Andrea Scrima writes about wonderfully in her autobiographically colored debut.”